This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Generally, a 'bad trip' is the last thing you want from a sesh on psychedelics. When it feels like the darkest corners of your mind slither to the forefront of your thoughts, you usually fumble for a way out. But that's not always the case. “Dark trips help you see things in a way that good trips won’t let you," says Enrique, 26, from Ojai, a small city northwest of Los Angeles. "Dark trips grab you by the skull and shake the shit right out of you.” He would know. He turned to “horror-tripping” – intentionally going down a negative cerebral path, to challenge yourself – while going through heroin withdrawal.
As an LSD veteran, Enrique knew the power of psychedelics, but, he says magic mushrooms delivered a sense of clarity like nothing else: “Letting in the darkness by tripping teaches you a lesson – and you damn well pay attention to it.”
His defining moment came while he was tripping with a friend who also lived with a heroin use disorder. “I looked over and saw he was surrounded by a deep-red energy. Above his head, the grim reaper was hanging there as if to say, ‘yer mine now’. It was heroin addiction personified. The red energy around my friend crept over to me… I realised that I, too, had been trapped by addiction and the grim reaper was watching me." Ultimately, he says that experience helped him stop using heroin. He now lives at home with his parents, working as a restaurant pot-washer and playing guitar, binge-watching Netflix and smoking weed in his time off.
In both the UK and the US, funding is flowing towards research into psilocybin, the active component of magic mushrooms, as a treatment for depression. The world’s first formal centre for psychedelic research launched at Imperial College London in April, with scientists there suggesting psilocybin will have a major impact on psychiatry in the next few years. Adam Winstock, consultant psychiatrist and founder of the Global Drugs Survey, has told VICE that when the 2020 report is released next month, it will show a spike in people attempting to self-treat with psychedelics.
For now, as in Enrique’s case, magic mushrooms have nudged soul-searchers along a more extreme route to contentment. Dark trippers identify opportunity in facing the horror that many consider a bad trip.
It’s a recurring theme on the magic mushroom forum Shroomery. Reddit users also discuss intentionally frightening experiences; a chat on the r/shrooms forum compares it to watching a scary movie with the lights off, listening to a chilling album, or visiting an eerie location. One member, Alex*, writes: “Realising everything is OK after is a rush. This is the first breath of fresh air in what may feel like eternity and it tastes fucking fantastic!”
When I get in touch to learn more, I find Alex's life is surprisingly strait-laced. He's an audio engineering student with a love of music, hiking and camping; the only thing that seems to sets him apart is his horror-trip habit, stumbled upon accidentally. He says a bad trip on 5g of mushrooms while he was camping with friends, in which he imagined he’d died and seen his own burial, enhanced his life for the better long-term. “I greatly value the terrifying, absurd, chaotic aspects of tripping because of the perspective they give me on stability," he tells me. "Now I notice all the beautiful things I’d taken for granted about existence.“
Across the Atlantic Ocean, a chill creeping in with the dank scent of autumn means the start of the UK’s magic mushroom season. Scores of spindly fungi are pushing up through the earth and into the light, ripe to be plucked until around the end of November.
Justin, 33 and from north London, knows their horror-tripping potential well. Throughout his twenties, the law graduate held a high-pressured job at a finance company in Canary Wharf. But he didn’t find it mentally stimulating – and the rigid environment began to send his social anxiety spiralling. “My soul was telling me, ‘get the fuck out of here.’” So he quit. He took part-time shift work in customer services while living with his parents. With this new-found headspace, he sought resolutions for his anxiety, receiving emotional coaching and partaking in silence and meditation retreats. Now, Justin works as a coach himself.
Though he enjoys the exhilaration, his purpose for horror-tripping is more than a quick thrill or creep-value. “It’s like when Luke Skywalker meets Darth Vader, Skywalker is actually facing up to the shadow of himself. It’s the same as bringing up dark parts of your psyche and forcing yourself to look at them”.
The Star Wars analogy harks to Carl Jung’s concept of the Shadow, an aspect of our unconscious psychology that our conscious refuses to acknowledge. The less the Shadow is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. So, Jung says, acknowledging the Shadow is essential.
“Lots of people who work in the City do drugs. But this is different. I take mushrooms for sacred purposes,” says Justin. He and his small group of spiritually minded friends treat each trip like a ceremony. Darkness, silence and a nest of cushions and blankets surround each person. They banish sharp objects from the room, each eat an omelette cooked with 2.5g of Ecuador magic mushrooms – then they wait. Soon, Justin says he's seeing only in black-and-white, and a friend's face beside him has turned black but for startling bright-white eyes, tongue outstretched. She's morphed into the Hindu goddess.
Done correctly, Justin believes, existential “dark-tripping” experiences are gilded with long-term benefits. One of their group had been in a serious car crash the previous year – on shrooms he broke down as he fully absorbed how close he’d come to death. Then, Justin says, he started seizing opportunities and switched careers. Lesson-learning is an essential part of the process.
Adam Winstock of the Global Drugs Survey advises caution with this practice. Although the concept of dark-tripping makes sense, it’s not usual, and he wouldn’t recommend it.Some dark trips veer into runaway paranoia (as Super Hans says in the Peep Show shrooms party episode, “probably best not to think about that right now... but it's fuckin' horrible, yeah?”).
“Most people want a positive experience," Adam says, "If you’re a recreational user and things occasionally take a turn, fine. For thousands of years people have been trying to break consciousness through rituals involving drugs. But to purposely challenge yourself without supervision, or afterwards proper guidance and integration, is risky."
"If you want to face your demons, you go to therapy," he continues. "Besides, the challenges we learn from in everyday life are accidental. The problem with trying to speed up the process is that the lessons we need are not always the ones we know we need. A trip isn’t going to make you less of an arse-hole in your next relationship."
Sita*, a 34-year-old librarian, from Windsor, was so enthusiastic about personal growth through shrooms that she attempted a “supercharged” trip by consuming 10g of Aztec Gods in one sitting. This strain of mushroom was considered a holy sacrament to the Aztecs, who named it teonanacatl, meaning Flesh of the Gods. “I got thrown into an eternal consciousness with a broken back as the Gods laughed at and taunted me. It lasted for six hours, with the after-effects continuing for several days after. The lesson? What we’re ready for in a given moment is what will organically unfold before us. Nothing more. Overall, my experiences have brought courage and reverence for existence. Every trip has connected me deeper to what lies behind the veil. It’s not recreational.”
You’d be forgiven for considering six hours of taunting from the Gods a bad Saturday night. But the school of thought in this community is that good and bad are human judgements: one experience may be more challenging than another, but every leap down the rabbit hole is a chance to learn about yourself. While no one sets out to do a Super Hans, it'll be interesting to see, as any possible healing qualities to these drugs become more widely considered in the mainstream, whether uncomfortable trips will be seen as a growth opportunity by more drug users than just these rogue outliers.
*Some names have been changed to people's identities.